A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
Itís the harvest season again. A wee nip of autumn underscores the summer breezes, store windows are full of back to school banners, and vacation bills are creating their normal crop of temporary scarcity. Janice and I are still swapping occasional opportunities to sleep in, but we know those mornings are numbered. The range of finished projects and household details is measured against those that must needs wait another year, and the lazy pace of mostly unplanned days lingers just a bit longer.
This is a time to celebrate. For the first year since the move, weíve sculpted the garden into something like the shape we want it, and itís yielding bounty: fresh herbs, salad, green beans and cucumbers, green tomatoes teasingly glinting orange, and a tiny melon currently no larger than a grape. None of this means a whole lot to the house financially, but the psychological value is enormous. I have the fondest memories of eating fresh homegrown tomatoes on the spot in my childhood garden, and surely nothing tastes as sweet. Moreover, these are the only produce in our larder than I can genuinely guarantee are 100% organic, since they miraculously sprouted from seeds I saw my beloved wife stick in the ground, and theyíve fed on nothing but water and sunlight since. Itís significant that Janiceís were the fingers thrusting into the dirt on that occasion, because I was never much of a gardener. My earliest abortive attempts to grow plants were disastrous, and by the age of twenty I was pretty much convinced my motherís green thumb had skipped a generation and left me a black one in its stead. But today, in reflecting on it, I wonder if thatís entirely true.
Iíve added a lot of skills to my repertoire in a few years of parenting, and I can certainly number among them a greater ability to remember what needs regular tending to and some of the patience it takes to bring a crop to fruition. Parenting, like an association with other growing things, tends to teach one to take the long view. When Iím butting heads with Keefe and manage to keep my cool, I know itís a seed planted deep, just like the monologue stories Hugh tells himself unselfconsciously while drawing at his easel are clearly the ripened fruit of stories we told together years ago.
But looking beyond the myopic view of the boys that fills my stubborn parentís head, part of what weíre harvesting is something very much larger than another anecdote about my sons. Weíve wanted so much to build around us the whole village it takes to raise a child. For a while when Keefe was Hughís age or younger, it seemed we had it, but much of the clan that was so richly part of our lives almost constantly then has become a sadly distant group of people. These things happen, as you know, with no malice but a certain inevitability. The vibrant young folk who partied with us are busy carving their own niches in an expanding view of the world and not for the most part terribly keen on the whirlwind of needy chaos our children provide us on a daily basis, and parents we were close to had children that have since grown able to attend to themselves, so they too are ready to move on to other perhaps quieter things. Finally, scheduling, work and distance (this was a group spread over several cities) add greatly to the cost of trying to remain a consistent presence in each otherís lives. But in the past couple of years, as quietly as the garden, another community of like-minded parents has sprouted together around us locally. A varied and interesting group who are pretty much walking the same road in life that we are, and who make such excellent company that itís a darned sight more pleasant to walk it together.
So with further nostalgia, weíve already done some canning and laying in preserves for the months ahead, and I look forward to more in the next few weeks. The nearby farmersí market sports lovely locally grown produce far cheaper than the nearest supermarket chain, and the pressure canner isnít gathering dust. Our house blend pasta sauce and jams donít contain any ingredients a five year old canít pronounce, and come somewhat cheaper per jar than their mass market equivalents, even though itís straining our budget to pay for them up front like this. Thatís another parenting truism as well: the effort you put in up front saves you more in the long run. Thatís why weíre muddling through on a single income and investing so much direct time on the boys. Thereíll be a winterís day that we crack the seal on that jam and itíll taste like canned summer, and thereíll be a day that Keefe really feels a sense of his own innate power and worth thatís distinct from the video game world of Ďpower over others.í
One of the joys of canning lies in
its nature as a communal activity. I invited part of the community weíre
building to be with us when I filled my first jar of the year, and Iíll
invite others when Iím filling the last. My season of harvest needs those
social bookends, the stories shared over tea while the veggies are chopped
and the pot bubbles -- just for seasoning, like the couple of home-grown beans
that go in with the batch we bought. Are the beans we grew in this jar? In
that one? It doesnít matter Ė they infuse the lot of them. With luck,
some of those anecdotes will also bubble to the top when weíre eating them
later, because what Iím trying to stuff into those unassuming jars is more
good memories, of a perfect end-of-summer day when my family opened like a
blossom Ė an everyday occurrence that is always miraculous, and never
happens the same way twice, and never lasts outside of memory. Like the
veggies in the back yard, the sacred garden of our tribe just needs simple
things: sunlight and water, and some regular attention, and it grows in
beauty and its ability to nourish us.
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